Q&A

Is it Ableist For a Character to Impersonate Someone With a Disability?

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You’ve mentioned that characters faking disabilities can feed into the ableist misconception that disabled people are likely to just be faking for benefits. Is it less ableist if an abled character impersonates a specific other character who happens to have a disability? The example I’m thinking of is Harry Potter, in which an able-bodied Death Eater impersonates the one-eyed amputee Alastor Moody–though in that case, said Death Eater was genuinely missing an eye and leg while undercover, since he used a potion to transform his body to resemble Moody’s.

– Anonymous

Anonymous,

Thank you for your question!

Because this is a complex topic, I’m going to start with the three big reasons why it is harmful for a non-disabled character to fake a disability. The first, and biggest, reason is the myth that faking a disability is common. Every time that a non-disabled character fakes a disability, it reinforces this myth. In the real world, this causes a disturbing number of non-disabled people to attempt to seek out and punish “fakers.” Because faking a disability is actually rare, this attempt results in the harassment of disabled people who don’t match stereotypes, such as people with invisible disabilities and ambulatory wheelchair users.

The second reason is that successfully faking a disability includes reinforcing ableist stereotypes. For example, in order for a character to fake a disability without being caught by one of those people who are so zealously seeking out “fakers,” they need to portray a stereotypical depiction of disability. Because the character is actually non-disabled, there isn’t anything they can do to challenge these stereotypes. Revealing that a pathetic and helpless disabled character is actually a non-disabled villain in disguise does nothing to show that disabled people aren’t actually pathetic and helpless. Even when a non-disabled character deliberately manipulates ableist stereotypes, they aren’t doing anything to show that those stereotypes are untrue, so they end up reinforcing them.

The third reason is that portraying faking a disability as easy erases the way that ableism impacts the lives of disabled people. This is based on the idea that all of the barriers in a disabled person’s life come from their disability, so a non-disabled person faking their disability won’t have problems. This isn’t true. A non-disabled person using a wheelchair is still going to encounter inaccessible buildings. If they are unfortunate enough to be in a place with a lot of hills and unnecessary staircases, like the University of Washington campus, finding a wheelchair accessible route to their destination will be difficult and time-consuming. Similarly, a non-disabled person pretending to be neurodivergent is going to run into stigma and discrimination that they aren’t used to dealing with. Navigating the world as people with disabilities requires us to develop skills that non-disabled people don’t have. A non-disabled person faking a disability should immediately run into problems because they lack these skills.

Having an non-disabled person pretend to be a specific disabled person does address some of these problems, but not all of them. As long as the person they are imitating isn’t an ableist stereotype, then they won’t be either, but this is still portraying faking a disability as easy and common. Their lack of skill at living with a disability should show, especially to other disabled people. No matter how good they are at planning, their lack of lived experience should result in them encountering unexpected accessibility barriers. As a disabled person who is good at planning, I still frequently run into unexpected barriers when I do something new, and I have lived experience to draw on.

The example you bring up, where Barty Crouch Jr. imitates Alastor Moody in Harry Potter, is a bit different. It involves a physical transformation where Crouch physically becomes Moody, including his physical disabilities. While that magic lasts, Crouch is physically disabled and in need of the tools and accommodations that the real Moody uses. This is a big improvement in representation. However, the skills that come from the lived experience of being disabled are still being erased.

Getting used to a prosthetic isn’t trivial, and an eye that swivels all the way around to look through the back of your own head, as Moody’s magical eye does, must be disorienting at first. Yet Crouch successfully imitates Moody immediately after capturing him, because he is able to pass the noise he made fighting Moody off as a false alarm. Granted, this was with people who don’t know Moody super well, but it still implies an ability to put on Moody’s prosthetics and instantly be competent using them.

However, if you do want to make a story that includes someone impersonating a disabled character, there is an option that avoids all of these problems: have a disabled character impersonate them. If they have the same disability, then no faking is needed. A different disability where the character uses similar skills and adaptive equipment could also work, if it is done carefully. I do suggest erring on the side of caution when doing this, as it is important to be clear that different disabilities are distinct from each other. Magical transformations do help impersonations feel more believable, but this is because most fictional impersonations wouldn’t work without magic or technology. Finally, please keep in mind that each person’s experience of disability is unique, so even when characters have the same disability, imitating another person will still have challenges.

I hope that this answers your question, and I wish you the best of luck with your storytelling project!

—Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Tony

    I realized that another way this could work is if the infiltrator impersonates the character remotely, by sending letters or what have you.

  2. Jeppsson

    On reading this post, I’m immediately thinking it could be a cool plot point if the impersonator gets the looks right, but doesn’t manage to convincingly behave like a person who’s used to being blind/deaf/drive a wheelchair or what have you. That could be a way to expose them (I’m primarily thinking of the “impersonating a specific person” scenario).

    • Kieran

      That’s what they mean by “stereotype”. There is no one way to be blind/deaf/drive a wheelchair.

      • Jeppsson

        Oh, okay. I just thought that the impersonator would be clumsier and worse at it than the real person, if the real person is used to being blind/deaf/drive a wheelchair.

      • J. Neira

        Leaving aside the wheelchair example, Jeppdson’s idea is still a good one, I think. For instance, there are so many ways that a character pretending to be deaf could slip up.

  3. Kieran

    Frankly, the only way to do the trope is quite simple: if the character being impersonated is disabled, the infiltrator should have the exact same disability.

    Not only would this be practical in that the infiltrator wouldn’t have waste time “learning” how to act disabled, (a.k.a. be drilled in portraying an inaccurate stereotype), but it would also avoid the “fake disabled people” myth.

    I don’t know why writers think that “fake disabled people” are cool in this day and age, but I do know that this trope needs to DIE.

  4. AK Nephtali

    At one point, my blind character has to badly impersonate himself to avoid detection. (It’s a long story, don’t ask.) As such, he exaggerates the traits associated with blind people to pretend he’s not blind himself. He also makes a lot of: I see… Type of puns. Because the guards are fooled by their own ableism, I think this is a good case of a character impersonating another disabled character :D.

    Great article by the way! Have a great day everyone.

  5. CJ

    as a disabled person myself, no, there are many instances of characters impersonating disabled people, i personally make fun of myself and impersonate abled people, i have 1 and a half arms, my left is deformed, and i liek making fun of people who say things like “oh i one handed that,” and i’m like, really, you don’t say, i do it all the time

  6. J.Neira

    You could also have a non-disabled person try to impersonate, and simply fail at it. Like Jeppsson mentioned in the above comment. Pretending to be deaf, for instance, and then reacting in a way that shows they heard what was said.

    • Kieran

      That still falls into stereotype land, as well as “faking disability is common”

  7. Julia M.

    Great article Fay! I would like to chime in. I’m autistic, and your average neurotypical will not have the best view of what it’s like to be autistic. First of all, media is covered with autistic stereotypes. (We’re “robots”, we’re completely oblivious, etc. Not to mention the lack of representation. The main picture is still of a middle-class white boy.) Basically, if a neurotypical character pretends to have autism, it’ll basically be the Sheldon Cooper of portrayals. That insults autistic people by claiming that we’re all that stereotype, and it reduces the complex ways our minds differ into “LOOK HOW SOCIALLY AWKWARD THEY ARE.”

    To write good autistic characters, go online, and hear what we have to say. There is no one way of being autistic. Autism is not a personality trait. A goth boy and a pink-loving girl can both have autism and be completely different. Also, we may disagree with each other. We’re not a monolith.

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